A Cathedral for the Common Man
Photo Courtesy of Gauge Forum
Article Written by Joe Krzyton
From my stool, I catch glimpses of two men fighting on the sidewalk. I have to crane to see past people waiting for to-go orders and squint through the grill smoke, but from what little I can watch they appear to be good friends, perhaps even brothers. People fight differently when they know in the back of their mind that they’ll eventually have to sit down at a dinner table with their sparring partner, and both of these guys are passing up clear shots at the neck and head, going instead for ribs and shoulders. My intuition proves correct, and in ten minutes, after a lightly bloodied nose and a brief cooling-off outside, they are seated three stools down from me, eating chili and burgers in harmony. Such is the therapeutic power of the Texas Tavern.
To my immediate left, a man sits with his young son. They seem to be comfortably middle class, drawn to the place more out of a father’s nostalgia than the appeal of a cheap burger. I overhear stories about his youth spent here, tales of carefree late nights with his teenaged friends. As he speaks to his child he pauses frequently to bowdlerize his accounts, careful not to mention in passing to his nine year old that he almost always came here plastered.
Indeed, at a certain hour the Texas Tavern, which does not serve alcohol, has a way of serving as a magnet for drunk people, who stumble over from the neighboring bars and eat the Tavern’s greasy fare with ravenous enthusiasm. This nightly exodus gives the men who work there some of their best stories. Of all the grillmen, Bigsy (When I asked him his name he pointed at his hat, on which Bigsy, or Bugsy, or something of that nature, was written sloppily in black marker. Bigsy does not strike me as the kind of guy who likes to answer a question twice, and for that reason I can’t claim to know his name exactly.), tells the most compelling tales of late nights at the Tavern, which is open twenty-four hours.
“We got that little stand up counter over there and we used to have stools at it. One night we had some boys come in drunk as all hell, an’ they started fightin’ each other with the stools. We used to seat fourteen people, now we seat ten people.” Bigsy says this with the calm distance of a ship captain who has weathered high seas and seen much worse than he lets on. He turns to the other end of the counter, and asks in his accent, which is a southern drawl but quicker and sharper than most, “What’cha havin’ boss?”
At first, most of the customers seem to know Bigsy, but the longer I sit, it becomes apparent that Bigsy treats everybody like an old friend, stranger or not. He is the oldest of the employees there tonight, but he runs circles around them all. His energy is earthy, as are his stories, which betray glimpses of a past that he refuses to discuss directly when questioned. (I never mention to Bigsy that I’m at the Texas Tavern in a journalistic capacity, because I feel certain that he’d give me a lot of flak for it and stop answering any of my questions.)
“I tell y’all what, the stuff I seen happen here ain’t nothin’ compared so some of the other stuff I seen. Man, one time I was checkin’ up on my neighbor and I knocked on the door and saw his feet in the hallway. So I busted in and seen what was goin’ on, and he was dead. So I called the cops, and they asked me all these questions about him and tell me they gonna have to take me downtown. So they question me for hours, askin’ “Why’d you kill your neighbor?” and I tell them I didn’t kill the guy, and we did that for a long time and then all a sudden the cop goes “Well, I guess you really didn’t kill him” and lets me go.” He pauses, a little exasperated by the pace at which he told his story. “I tell y’all somethin’” He looks us all in the eyes at once, or seems to. We’re all hanging on his every word. “You ever see a dead body you keep right on walkin.’” The whole place erupted in warm laughter. There is wisdom to be gleaned at a place like this.
The Texas Tavern only has ten seats, and at a busy hour such as this there is an expectation that you’ll get your food and get out. Being here as a conscious observer, however, it’s imperative that I stick around longer than the time it takes to eat a burger, so in the course of an hour I’ve consumed a veritable feast. To be precise, a hot dog, two bowls of chili (spelled ‘chile’ on the menu), two hamburgers, and a cheesy western, which is a cheeseburger with relish, onions, pickle and a fried egg, all to keep my seat and justify my presence. The cheese western was the standout of the night. The tang of the onions and the sweetness of the relish were accentuated perfectly by the hamburger and cheese, which serve more a textural purpose than anything. It’s as close to an ethereal experience as can be had for two dollars and forty five cents.
Food aside, there is a feeling of equality at the Texas Tavern. Customers tend to get along, because regardless of race, economics, or gender, they’re the sort of people who enjoy a reasonably priced hamburger and a bowl of chile at an eighty-seven year old burger joint. Occasional drunken conflicts aside, to some extent the usual prejudices and hang-ups are checked at the door. There is a sense of harmony between patrons and employees here as well. At times, it seems as if the Texas Tavern is a model for how the world should act. It is free of pretention and governed by a playful, affectionate civility. Bigsy hinted at this when he told us about Mike Pence’s visit to the restaurant during a campaign stop.
“I think he figured we’d all be into him and Trump, but most of us weren’t real big on them. The secret service made him order from the to-go window, and he’s standin’ there eatin’ his chile, and someone from the back of the place starts shoutin’ at him, but it wasn’t nothin’ vulgar. He was tellin’ Pence how he felt about his policies, and I don’t think the old boy knew what to do. Figured we’d be in his corner, I reckon.”
It’s a telling anecdote. On paper, a working-class burger dive in southwest Virginia should have been a friendly crowd, but in practice it was not. It’s not that the Texas Tavern is a bastion of liberal politics, either. (In the parking lot, which is tiny, I saw more than one “Hillary for Prison” bumper sticker.) It’s that, in a very special way, the place transcends politics. To visit it to win votes, or really for any other reason than to eat a burger, seems like sacrilege. It borders on sacred, a cathedral for the common man.
As I pay my tab, I find that I’m twenty cents short. (The Tavern is a cash-only operation, though that almost goes without saying.) I offer to run to my truck and retrieve some change from the ashtray, but Bigsy tells me not to bother.
“Twenty cents ain’t worth makin’ a fuss over.” He says this affectionately, though I think he’s glad to have the seat open to make room for the growing bunch of standing customers, some of whom are pretty clearly here at the end of a bar crawl. As I leave the place, I do so with reverence. The threshold has been worn by years of foot traffic, and the glass has been made foggy by grill smoke, but unlike the McDonald’s a mile away, everything about this place is real. The dents on the counter and wear on the furnishings are a result of generations of cherished use. The dirt on the floor is not there on account of neglect, but heavy travel and thorough appreciation. It’s greasy, grimy, and crowded, but in every sense that matters this might be the purest place in town.